hammerheadsThe first group of hammerhead sharks came straight toward us. They were three to four meters long and their self-confident approach caused us to take cover behind overhanging rocks 25 meters below the surface. Soon after, a congregation of about 50 hammerheads passed directly above us, just meters away. We remained motionless and held our breath.

Within a few moments, we were surrounded. It was a sight that commanded our respect. Their massive gray and white bodies moved nimbly while their black eyes scanned the deep blue depths of the ocean. When we were sure they had gone, we left our hiding place and swam toward a rock shelf where roughly a dozen reef sharks waited en masse.

During the first dives, I was apprehensive even addressing the sharks at some distance. And even after a number of days in their environment—after seeing hundreds of reef sharks in close proximity—as I nearly rubbed against their meter-long bodies at the shelf, my uneasiness returned. Only 20 or 30 centimeters away, the sharks came alive and their bodies became rigid and filled with alarming force. Their yellowish green eyes looked threatening, and I backed carefully away, fearful of an attack, as they quickly left.

The treasure cove

Also known as Treasure Cove Island, pirates first came to Cocos Island during the 17th century to ready themselves and gather supplies in preparation for their next raid along the South American coast.

According to an enduring legend, pirates have hidden gold and precious stones worth hundreds of millions of dollars on this very island. Yet none of the more than 500 treasure expeditions has uncovered even as much as one gold doubloon. The real treasure lies instead in the ocean around the island. In the warm, shimmering turquoise waters exists a sanctuary of animals and plants that in many cases live only around the island.

“There is nothing to compare to this,” says underwater photographer Jay Ireland, who for 30 years has dived in places all over the world. “Coco is, for me, number one. There is nowhere else I can swim around with hundreds of hammerhead sharks and then meet whale sharks, giant manta rays, sea turtles and dolphins—during just one dive! There are
unprecedented numbers of species here, and the most surprising thing is the enormous numbers in which they exist.”

Hammerhead sharks in full force

Cocos Island is one of the few places in the world where hammerhead sharks assemble in the hundreds. They come here along with other large ocean species like whale sharks and giant manta rays to cleanse themselves of reef fish. Most dives are held near these “cleaning stations,” which often lie 30 to 40 meters below the surface. It is here that hammerhead sharks stop to let small fish clean away parasites and dead tissue. Scientists also believe hammerhead sharks are drawn to the island to breed, which may explain why they arrive in such large numbers. Cocos Island is also a halfway point in their migration through the Pacific Ocean.

Because the island is a national park, divers live on boats during the trips to the island, which often last 10 days. The actual diving takes place from Zodiacs or small aluminum boats that can hold up to 20 divers. Three dives a day often will be enough to satisfy even the most curious, but for those who are dare brave the water once more, a night dive is often scheduled. Free time is spent exclusively preparing for the next dive; cameras are cleaned, batteries charged and film developed.

Hidden treasures

While waiting for the next dive, treasure hunts and more than 200 waterfalls on the island offer an unforgettable experience. Early one morning, we came ashore with the Zodiacs. The high waves forced us to swim the final stretch, and we were cast ashore by the powerful waves.

From the beach, we started into the jungle and began our hike toward a waterfall hidden by the dark green tropical foliage. Every cave here seems to be the ideal hiding place for treasure, and it is easy to let your imagination take over. On the larger rocks, seafarers have carved the names of ships and short messages, including arrows and other mysterious symbols. Could a map to buried treasure be hidden among these carvings?

After half an hour of hiking along a jungle brook, we arrived at a cliff wall where a waterfall thundered down from a height of 60 meters. The water was wonderfully cool and refreshing, and while we rested under the falls our guide began to tell us stories of gold fever. One man, a German, lived on the island during the early 1900s with his American wife. For 20 years, they searched for hidden treasure before finally giving up and returning to the mainland. The man later died penniless in New York City, never having discovered so much as one gold coin.

As exciting as it is to prowl the banks of Coco as a pirate might, all that fades away the minute we entered the water. During a dive with my diving partner, Randy Johnson (who owes his “Ice Man” moniker to his home state of Alaska), 12 large mantas quickly approached. We adapted our weights and hung motionless just under the surface while they calmly swam under, over and between us at just a few inches away. We could clearly see traces of parasites on their bodies, small sores and even the reef fish that helped to heal the sores. That dive was worth more than any treasure of gold! When we later came up to the surface, our Zodiac’s driver told us that mantas often follow the rubber boats and hold themselves close to the vessels.

Few accidents

Living onboard a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with 15 other divers for 10 days was an intense experience. Even though every dive involves contact with sharks numbering in the hundreds, attacks are rare. This is due in part to the crew, which stringently instructs divers not to touch the sharks. Sharks usually aren’t interested in divers and will leave them alone as long as they aren’t bothered.

“I have witnessed one or two accidents where a diver was attacked by reef sharks, but it has always been the diver’s fault,” says dive master Mario Vargas, who has been diving around Cocos Island for almost 10 years. He explained that it is inviting to touch the sharks when they come so close.

“Reef sharks, especially those that can measure up to three meters long, usually ignore divers. But if someone touches them, they will be bitten immediately—and it hurts! Most often it is a bite on the hand and the attack is over.” He went on to say he has never witnessed a hammerhead shark attack, perhaps because of the deference shown by divers during their interactions.

Beyond sharks, undercurrents around Cocos Island can also betray a diver. To try and swim against them is useless, and divers should stay near the coastline during every dive. If divers lose sight of the coastline, it takes mere minutes for the current to drag them out into the Pacific Ocean. Crews, however, are experienced and know where they should look if a diver does not come up at the agreed-upon meeting place.

Powerful up or down streams are also common. They are caused by deep ocean streams that collide with the coast, and they can, in no time at all, drag a diver with them. In such cases, all that counts is reacting quickly and adjusting your weights.

If you do not, things can end badly. During one dive I was sucked into a climbing stream that ran me into a cliff wall before I had a chance to react. Without looking, I stuck out my left hand, placing it on 20 or 30 needle-sharp sea urchins. I was worried when I saw blood seeping out of my glove, thinking that the nearby reef sharks would react to the smell of blood. But they left me alone.

Underwater oasis

Cocos Island is an island of cliffs. All of the dives are conducted along the coastline, or some hundred meters from the edge of the beach, where a number of locals go. The bottom is made up of fine-combed sand and sharp cliffs of volcanic origin. Visibility varies between 25 and 50 meters.

The island lies five degrees north of the equator, meaning a thin suit is enough to keep warm. For visitors, Cocos Island is an oasis both under the surface and on land. Of course, the pirates have left the island, but the priceless wealth of flora and fauna still remains.